Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs

By Paul Yung

In a recent mentorship circle I attend frequently, I was sharing with the group about a new market segment that I wanted to enter with potentially exponential returns.

Other companies have entered this market, I wanted to do it too. I presented an elaborate plan to my group with a generous budget and delusions of grandeur of potential returns.

One of the members turned to me and said, Paul, “fire bullets, then cannonballs”.

This idea, introduced by Jim Collins in his book “Great by Choice” illustrates a strategy for achieving success by testing small, low-risk ideas (bullets) before committing significant resources to larger, high-stakes ventures (cannonballs).

We’ve all heard horror stories of how people have over committed in the beginning and ran out of resources, energy and time before seeing any return.

To avoid us falling into this pit, let’s explore this idea today at work, life and love.

In this dynamic and competitive job market, job seekers constantly face the challenge of finding the right career path. Instead of diving headfirst into a single career choice, it’s wise to fire bullets first.

This could mean taking internships, part-time jobs, or short-term projects in different fields to gain diverse experiences. For instance, a fresh graduate might try out roles in marketing, finance, and tech to see where their passion and skills align best.

Consider the example of Tan Sri Tony Fernandes, the CEO of AirAsia. Before transforming the airline industry, he worked in the Warner Music Group and finance. These smaller “bullets” helped him identify opportunities and build the skills necessary to launch AirAsia successfully.

By testing the waters in different areas, you can gather valuable insights and build a solid foundation for your career, eventually leading to that “cannonball” moment when you find your true calling.

Personal growth is a lifelong journey, and exploring various interests is essential to discovering what truly fulfils you.

Try out many different hobbies and activities—these are your bullets. Whether it’s learning a new language, picking up a musical instrument, trying a new sport, stamp collecting, colouring or knitting, these small experiments will lead to significant personal development.

Take the example of Datuk Nicol David, Malaysia’s squash queen. Before becoming a world champion, she tried different sports including athletics and swimming. These experiences helped her discover her passion for squash, which she pursued with dedication, eventually becoming an 8-time world squash champion.

By experimenting with various activities, you can find your passion and invest more time and energy into it, turning it into a “cannonball” that shapes your life meaningfully.

In relationships, whether romantic or platonic, take the time to get to know someone through small, meaningful interactions before committing fully. This could involve casual dates, group outings, or engaging in shared activities to understand each other better.

Many successful relationships start as friendships. By spending time together in low-pressure settings, you can build a strong foundation of trust and understanding. This gradual approach helps in identifying shared values and compatibility, making the eventual commitment (the cannonball) to something more solid and lasting.

The “fire bullets, then cannonballs” strategy is about smart experimentation and calculated risk-taking.

Back to my story, I reflected on the many mistakes I made in the past. I have went all in on new markets, hobbies, ventures and products and more often than not, I lost time, opportunity and money. This concept resonated with me. I toned down the budget and elaborate plan to one which only required a time investment, meaning no financial investment required, and minimal effort.

The idea is not to be lazy or over cautious, it’s to be pragmatic in navigating uncertainty and seizing opportunities. Fire bullets first—test your ideas, learn from them, and then, when the time is right, commit fully and fire your cannonballs. This approach not only maximizes your chances of success but also enriches your journey with diverse experiences and meaningful connections.